The stereo was pumping: “You show the lights that stop me … You shine it when I’m alone and so I tell myself that I’ll be strong …”
And the youth of FIERCE—with their mohawks, body-piercings, skinny jeans and assorted other signatures of personal style—were dancing to the beat. They sang along with to Ellie Goulding’s “Lights,” sometimes “vogue-ing” in the tradition of their gay and transgender elders who demanded back in the 1980s that city officials rebuild Pier 45. Pier 45 was their dance floor that summer evening. Ever since it was rebuilt, it’s been a safe gathering place for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and queer people, or, as they call themselves, the LGBTQ community.
Even recreation such as FIERCE’s “Artistic Night” at Pier 45 become opportunities for members of Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment to share concerns, support each other and learn how to advocate on their own behalf as LGBTQ youth of color.
“We use the collective knowledge in the room to understand the systems of oppression,” said Ellen “Manny” Vaz, communications director for FIERCE, which started in 2000.
Since then, it has gained notice by, for example, taking its causes directly to the White House.
“Mic check! Mic check! … Tell President Obama, a message from us queers. We want justice for our people … “
That’s what FIERCE members belted from the back of the room earlier this year as they disrupted a conference in Washington, D.C.
They also are pushing New York City officials to name October as LGBTQ “youth empowerment month.”
Several FIERCE members attended Community Board 2’s July 23 meeting, where a plan to remake Pier 40, which is right next to Pier 45, into luxury condominiums was on the agenda. FIERCE opposes the plan, fearing that private developers eventually will want to build luxury real estate at Pier 45, too.
“It drives costs up for every one,” Vaz said. “For LGBTQ youth, the cost, potentially, could be our space. If you talk to your youth, they’ll say this space saved many of their lives.”
By that, she means FIERCE members know what previous activists did to make Pier 45 what it is. Youth gather there to strategize, relax, socialize and so on with people who are like them.
“I joined because it’s way different than a lot of other organizations,” said Tiph Brown, a junior photojournalism major at Howard University who is home in New York City for the summer. “It definitely helped me build my leadership skills and gave me the ability to see where my political voice is.”
She has been a member of FIERCE since 2008. “It is my second home,” Brown said of the organization, whose headquarters are in Chelsea.
From its West 24th Street offices, FIERCE also runs such programs as a four-week, leadership program that graduates 15 to 20 members at a time. The young leaders focus on racism, homophobia and transphobia and how to combat those stigmas.
Right now, the organization is creating its next three-year plan for advocacy and protest. FIERCE’s members are responsible for steering that conversation.
“The youth,” Vaz said, “are at the heart and leadership of the organization.”
On Twitter @Kiara_Cristina.